MEMORY Review: Earnest, Heartfelt Relationship/Family Drama

Lead Critic; San Francisco, California
MEMORY Review: Earnest, Heartfelt Relationship/Family Drama

Memory, the latest film by Mexican writer/director Michel Franco (Sundown, New Order, Chronic), is a performance- and character-driven relationship drama that also doubles as a family drama, with hints of the melodrama and thriller genres.

Sylvia (Academy Award winner Jessica Chastain), a 40-something care worker and recovering substance abuser, and Saul (Peter Sarsgaard, the Best Actor winner at last year’s Venice Film Festival), a middle-aged man suffering from early onset dementia, meet under the most inauspicious and inappropriate of circumstances: He follows her home after making eye contact with her at a school reunion.

She, in turn, rejects his advances and leaves the unwanted visitor outside her door to fend for himself. He doesn’t. She finds him the next morning outside her doorstep, still waiting for her.
What starts in jarring, discomfiting fashion – Sylvia connecting the memory-impaired Saul to a long-ago high-school assault – and Saul, an inadvertent, possibly deliberate stalker, setting up the thriller-like stakes for both characters and by extension, the film, almost imperceptibly evolves into something else together. In a few, short scenes, Sylvia, trained as a caregiver and thus trained in putting the emotional and physical needs of others first, and Saul, a man lost to himself as well as time, forge an unlikely relationship, one which will face both usual and unusual obstacles over the course of Memory’s running time.
It’s a relationship adeptly tuned to the kind of mutual need that – in different, less confident directorial hands – could easily devolve into cloying, manipulative sentimentality typical of melodrama or even camp. Rarely one for sentiment or sentimentality, however, Franco relies on both Chastain and Sarsgaard to give carefully modulated, understated performances, full of feeling, yet more importantly, also devoid of inauthenticity or theatricality.
While Memory focuses primarily on Sylvia and Saul’s burgeoning relationship, it eventually expands to encompass Sylvia’s family, specifically her daughter, Anna (Brooke Timber), Sylvia’s younger sister, Olivia (Merritt Weaver), and their estranged mother, Samantha (Jessica Harper). For reasons that become devastatingly clear later in the film, the estrangement between Sylvia and her mother ties to a past filled with unresolved trauma and Sylvia’s addictive behavior. Filled with long-held slights, bitterness, and more than a touch of despair, their emotionally charged scenes as a family apart from Sylvia and Saul unfold like a mini-film of their own.
Neither a mirror nor a reflection of Sylvia’s family, Saul’s upper-class, moneyed one extends to Isaac (Josh Charles), his long-term caregiver-brother, and Isaac’s teen daughter, Sara (Elsie Fischer). Isaac and Sara care for Saul in a general sense, though it’s also just as obvious that the demands of Saul’s constant care have taken a toll on them both. Once Sylvia enters the frame, Issac sees the perfect opportunity, matching Sylvia’s caregiving skills and interest in Saul with Saul’s emotional and physical needs.
Given the progressive nature of Saul’s degenerative condition, anything approaching a typically uplifting “happy ending” for Sylvia and Saul seems like a distant, never-to-be-fulfilled dream. To Franco’s considerable credit as a filmmaker, however, the resolution he does give us doesn’t feel false or tacked-on, meant to give audiences a feel-good moment before they head for the exits and whatever meal awaits them in a nearby restaurant or the comfort of their home.

Instead, Franco, a sometime skeptic of human nature and its discontents who’s given into his pessimistic, cynical nature, gives Sylvia and Saul the heartfelt, purposeful resolution that feels both earned and deserved.
Memory opened in limited release on Friday, December 29, and expands to additional markets and movie theaters on Friday, January 5. Visit the official site for more information

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Brooke TimberElse FischerJessica ChastainJessica HarperMemoryMerritt WeaverMichel FrancoPeter Sarsgaard

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